Following a Weight Loss Plan for Dogs

By Canadian Academy of Veterinary Nutrition (CAVN), Caitlin Grant, DVM, DVSc, Dip ECVCN; Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

Weight loss is tough for anyone - two- or four-legged! However, losing weight and getting in shape can potentially add years to your dog's life, and can also make those extra years more enjoyable. Helping your cuddly canine to shed a few pounds may be more achievable than you think. It requires a commitment to weight loss and fitness, attention to detail, and partnership with your veterinary healthcare team.

Why should my dog lose weight?

Even a few pounds above the ideal body weight can put your dog at risk of developing some serious medical conditions. Unfortunately, when a dog is overweight or obese, there is no question that it will develop a condition secondary to the excess weight, just how soon and how serious. Some of the common disorders associated with excess weight include:

  • type 2 diabetes
  • heart disease
  • osteoarthritis (arthritis)
  • increased frequency of joint injuries
  • high blood pressure
  • some forms of cancer - especially intra-abdominal cancers

Overweight and obese dogs usually have shorter lives than their fitter, normal-weight counterparts. Heavy dogs tend to physically interact less with their families and are less energetic and playful. They tend to lie around more, so it is easier to overlook early signs of illness, since we may attribute their lethargy to their normal laziness.

"Dogs may also experience muscle loss secondary to inactivity, which can make it even more challenging for them to move around."

Dogs may also experience muscle loss secondary to inactivity, which can make it even more challenging for them to move around. There is good evidence that dogs who are a healthy weight live significantly longer than dogs who are overweight.

How should I begin a weight-loss program for my dog?

Theoretically, weight loss seems simple enough: fewer calories in, plus more calories out, equals weight loss. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. You should never put your dog on a diet without the assistance of your veterinary healthcare team.

There may be an underlying medical condition that is causing or contributing to your dog’s excess weight. Some common diseases associated with weight gain include hypothyroidism and hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease). These diseases, along with others, should be ruled out as possible causes or contributors to your dog’s weight problem prior to beginning a diet.

Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination, nutritional assessment, and recommend blood tests to ensure that there are no obstacles to weight loss for your pet.

What makes veterinary weight-loss diets special?

There are several options for veterinary therapeutic weight-loss foods for your dog, including dry, wet, and different flavors. These weight-loss foods have been formulated for calorie restriction. They each differ slightly, and some are meant to be used concurrently with other conditions (e.g., prevention of bladder stones). In general, the key features are:

  • Lower energy density: Weight-loss diets typically have fewer calories per cup or per 100 grams so that your pet can still have a decent volume of food but receive fewer calories.
  • Higher in protein: Preserves lean muscle and still meets protein requirements when the dog is fed fewer calories.
  • Higher in fiber: Adds bulk to the diet, which helps with satiety.
  • Lower in fat: To reduce energy density.
  • Higher concentration of vitamins and minerals: Your dog’s intake of essential nutrients is correlated with the amount of those nutrients in the food and how much your dog eats. Purpose-formulated veterinary therapeutic weight-loss foods have a higher concentration of nutrients, so your dog will still meet their requirements, even when fed a reduced number of calories.

Another type of weight-loss food has been formulated with specific nutrients that promote an increased metabolism, which helps dogs to burn calories more quickly. Your veterinarian can advise on the best weight-loss food for your dog’s particular situation. If the first approach is not successful, a different weight-loss food should be tried.

What about the over-the-counter (OTC) weight-loss foods – can I try one of those first?

There is actually no OTC weight-loss food for dogs (or cats). Foods in pet stores or other retailers that have a weight claim on the label are still considered adult maintenance diets and should not be fed in a calorie restricted manner; doing so could lead to nutrient deficiencies.

How much should I feed my dog to promote weight loss?

Your veterinary care team will calculate the number of calories your dog needs to lose weight. There are several different equations, and it is important to remember that these calculations are for the average dog. Your dog may need fewer, or more, calories to lose weight. It is essential to follow up with your veterinary team once you’ve started your dog on a weight-loss plan to ensure the number of calories is correct. Often, the initial number is just a starting point, and will need to be adjusted over time.

"Your veterinary care team will calculate the number of calories your dog needs to lose weight."

Your veterinarian may have you first complete a food diary. This is a written log of everything that goes into your dog’s mouth for several days. Your veterinarian can then determine your dog’s current calorie intake and start the weight loss plan at a lower amount. The food dose (amount to feed each day) depends on the weight-loss food that has been prescribed, as they each have a different energy density. This is one reason why you shouldn’t switch between weight-loss foods without having your veterinary team check the math for you first.

Ideally, your veterinarian will give you a food amount in grams per day, as opposed to cups or cans. Using a measuring cup to weigh food is not accurate and makes it very easy to over- or under-feed. Using a kitchen gram scale is the preferred method because it is much more accurate and allows for easier adjustments. For example, adjusting from 150 grams per day to 135 grams per day is easy with a kitchen gram scale, but how accurately you can adjust from 1 1/2 cup to 1 1/3 cup per day might depend on how many cups of coffee you’ve had!

How quickly should I introduce the new weight-loss food to my dog?

When you introduce a new diet to your dog, expect some time for transition. For dogs that are picky or who have had GI upset in the past, a slower transition over about three weeks might be recommended. First, offer small amounts of the new food in a separate bowl. Once your dog is eating the new food, consider the suggested transition guide:

  • Step 1: Mix 25% of the new food with 75% of the old food.
  • Step 2: Mix 50% of the new food with 50% of the old food.
  • Step 3: Mix 75% of the new food with 25% of the old food.
  • Step 4: Give 100% of the new food.

Each step is meant to last two to three days, but you can go faster or slower, depending on how well your dog is doing. For dogs that have been exposed to a variety of foods and textures, and who have no history of GI upset with new food, a faster transition might be appropriate.

If your dog refuses to eat the new diet, or if you have any concerns during this initial introduction period, do not hesitate to contact the veterinary clinic for advice. They may recommend some strategies to enhance palatability, such as warming the food, adding a flavoring such as FortiFlora® (a probiotic with flavor enhancer), adding a small amount of chicken or beef broth, or giving an omega-3 fatty acid supplement. It is important to talk to your veterinary team before doing any of these things, so they can ensure they are safe (if your dog has other medical conditions) and to ensure the weight loss plan considers the calories coming from these items.

Can I still feed treats?

Yes! A weight-loss plan does not mean getting rid of treats, but it does mean you might have to change how treats are fed and what is fed as a treat. The calories coming from treats need to be accounted for in your dog’s weight-loss plan. A typical rule is that 10% of calories can come from treats and 90% should come from the food. So, if your dog needs 600 calories, 60 can come from treats and 540 should come from the food.

The calorie content of dog treats can vary widely, so be sure to check the label of any treat packages. Or consider asking your veterinary team for a treat option that pairs with the weight-loss food. Your veterinary team can help you design a treat budget, so you know exactly how many of each kind of treat you can give each day without going above the 10% rule.

How can I get my dog to lose more weight through exercise?

Before making any changes to your dog’s physical activity, speak with your veterinarian to ensure a change in activity level is safe. Dogs that are morbidly obese may not be able to tolerate more exercise until they have started to lose weight.

If an increase in activity is deemed safe, the first thing you can is to increase the intensity and length of your daily walk. Few dogs naturally walk at a pace that generates the elevated heart rates needed for sustained aerobic activity and weight loss. Based on observations of people walking with their dogs, the average pace is 20 to 25 minutes per mile (12–15 minutes per kilometer), which is a stroll. They make frequent pauses (on average every one to two minutes) to allow their dog to smell an interesting object or mark territory. Walking for weight loss is very different than walking for pleasure. You should aim for a daily, brisk, 30-minute walk. With this sort of walking, you should break into a slight sweat within a few minutes. For details on developing a healthy walking program for your dog, see the handout "Walking Your Dog for Weight Loss".

Additional tips for getting your dog to exercise more:

  • Move the food bowl upstairs or downstairs, changing its location frequently, so the dog always must walk to get to its food bowl. Dogs are smart and if the food bowl moves upstairs, they will head upstairs, too.
  • Feed your dog in a treat ball, puzzle feeder, or other interactive feeder to slow down their eating and help them feel fuller.
  • Use toys, balls, laser pointers, squeaky toys, or sticks to encourage games of chase or fetch. Try to play with your dog for at least ten to fifteen minutes, twice a day. Some toys move randomly and make noises that may be interesting to your dog. For many dogs, variety is important, and what is exciting or interesting today may be boring tomorrow.
  • Consider asking for a referral to a veterinary rehabilitation practitioner. Rehabilitation services can include things like an underwater treadmill and dry range of motion exercises that you can be taught to do at home.

How can I discourage my dog from begging for more food?

It can be challenging to avoid giving in when your dog begs, especially if this occurs early in the morning or during your own mealtime. Remember that new habits take time and rewarding dogs for begging will only cause them to beg more. Here are some tips for managing begging behaviors:

  • Use an automatic feeder, so your dog learns to beg the feeder and not you.
  • Use an automatic feeder that allows you to control the amount of food that comes out in a serving, or a smart device that records your dog’s food intake.
  • Sometimes we misinterpret attention-seeking behavior as food begging. Instead of rewarding with food, give your dog attention with pats, brushing, by playing with them, or by going for a walk.
  • Adjust meal size and frequency. Research is not conclusive: some studies suggest smaller, more frequent meals are better for satiety (fooling dogs into thinking they are getting more), whereas other studies suggest fewer, larger meals have a better impact on satiety. One method may work better for your dog (and your schedule). The important thing is to ensure you are consistent with the total amount of food each day.
  • Offer fresh water instead of food. If your dog is eyeing the empty food bowl, a drink of cold, fresh water may satisfy that craving.
  • Use lower-calorie treats or fruits and vegetables as rewards instead of higher-calorie items. This will allow you to feed your dog a larger volume of snacks during the day rather than using up their entire 10% treat budget on one or two treats.
  • Put your dog in her crate or in a different room while you eat your own meals to remove the temptation of sharing from your plate.

I have more than one dog, but only one is overweight. What should I do?

Depending on your other dog’s nutritional needs, you might be able to feed them the same food, as many weight-loss foods are also appropriate for maintenance of adult dogs. If your second dog does not need to lose weight, you will feed them a larger portion. You can ask your veterinary team for an appropriate food dose.

Even if the same food is fed, it is essential that your dogs do not share a dish or steal from each other, as this can add additional calories. Some ideas for how to do this:

  • Feed the dogs specific meals during the day and monitor mealtime. Remove any leftover food after the designated mealtime.
  • Feed the dogs in separate locations. Feed the overweight dog her diet in one room, while feeding the other dog elsewhere. Allow them to eat for a specific time, generally 15 to 30 minutes, then remove any uneaten food until the next feeding.
  • Never leave food out while you are away. You cannot control who eats what when you are away.

How often should I have my dog's progress checked?

After you have started a weight loss program for your dog, under your veterinarian’s guidance and instruction, it is critical to determine if the prescribed plan is working. A plan that is working means your dog is eating the prescribed diet at the prescribed amounts, is not getting any unaccounted calories, is not having adverse reactions such as vomiting or diarrhea and is losing weight appropriately. Your dog should be reassessed within one week of initiating the diet plan – even if you are still transitioning to the new food at this time.

"Your dog should be reassessed within one week of initiating the diet plan – even if you are still transitioning to the new food at this time."

Once your dog has fully transitioned to the new food, another assessment should be done within one to two weeks, so your veterinary care team can ensure the feeding amounts are appropriate. After that, your dog should be weighed at least every other week until the goal weight is achieved. Your veterinarian might allow you to weigh your dog at home, if you have an accurate scale, and report those weights. In that case, you should still bring your dog in to the clinic for an assessment once per month to ensure you are getting an accurate measurement on your home scale.

How long will my dog need to be on a diet?

Each dog is an individual and may require adjustments in the recommended diet or routine, which could lengthen the duration of the weight loss plan. Though weight loss is the goal, rapid weight loss is not a good thing, as it can lead to loss of lean muscle. Ideally, dogs should lose somewhere between 1% and 2% of their initial body weight per week, and closer to 0.5% might be more achievable for morbidly obese dogs.

The time it takes for your dog to reach their target body weight will depend on a few factors:

  • how quickly they accept the new diet plan;
  • the rate of weight loss (e.g., losing 1% will take twice as many weeks as 2%); and
  • the total amount of weight to lose.

For most dogs, the secret ingredient to successful weight loss is a strong partnership between their dedicated, committed, family and the veterinary team.

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